“Aren’t gravel bike events just a mountain bike course, ridden using cyclocross bikes for the same length of time as a road race?”
To be honest, 12 months ago, that’s pretty much exactly what I thought. However, for those that may have missed it, gravel riding has rapidly become the newest major trend in cycling.
Having a bike and taking to the trails and paths has become a symbolic representation of adventure and escapism from the increasingly busier roads. Don’t be fooled though, whilst the marketing and articles may say different, we might have been here before...
Which bike do you need?
For example, early editions of the Tour de France were held on gravel roads, Specialized released the ‘Rockcombo’ bicycle in 1989 (which was essentially a dropped bar mountain bike) and cycling legend John Tomac was racing a MTB with drop bars and a few centimetres of front suspension back in 1991.
Hell, even I wake up some mornings thinking I invented the whole thing when I rode a road bike I’d shoehorned some chunky tyres into back in the mid-80’s (that I later got a concussion from when my front wheel and forks decided to exit behind me as the rest of the bike disagreed and ploughed straight ahead). As kids, many of us just took our bikes anywhere, over anything and didn’t get too hung up about putting a label on it.
So given we may or may not have been here before, what do you need to enjoy gravel riding? The reality is, pretty much any bike you like.
Yes, the capability of what you have may then dictate the kind of adventure you go looking for but whether it’s a full suspension MTB, CX machine or one of the new gravel bike offerings, anything goes.
I was at the Grinduro gravel event this year and saw all of these types and more... and every one of us had the right and wrong bike for different points of the course.
If you go to race though, my advice is always to be fully aware of the ‘problem’ and then to work backwards to determine the best performance solution. This means knowing the course profile, the likely weather, the surfaces, the likely duration, the intensity you’ll be riding at, and then equipping yourself with the most competitive machine to achieve these needs.
Tyre width and pressure, gearing, handling and weight are all things you should be thinking about with respect to your chosen gravel event and this will likely change each time.
Either way, it’s better to go slightly ‘overbiked’ than ‘underbiked’. In other words, it’s better to have a slightly more capable machine than the course warrants. Be open-minded to what works for you – at Grinduro, I ran a hardtail MTB with, er, aerobars. At the Battle 100, I used a gravel bike with short travel suspension. At the inaugural national championships last month, I was using a gravel bike with a skinsuit and an aero helmet.
I suspect the lost time contemplating these options in my armchair obscures the fact that my legs and lungs could probably have had more time spent on them than my mathematics and chequebook did with the equipment.
How to train for a gravel race
When it comes to training for such events, this too can be as diverse as the route you find yourself on. However, if you’re 'in it to win it', you’re going to need the best aerobic engine you can develop to handle events that typically vary from three hours up to as much as twelve.
As to what you should do, this again, depends on the events. Some events are point-to-point races and these can involve long steady-state blocks of effort around 90% of your ‘functional threshold power’ (FTP) or roughly 85-95% of your maximum heart rate.
But, some others are segment-based affairs that see riders compete over timed sections contained within a more social long ride. These can then require a few hard efforts at your VO₂ max intensity but still contained within long periods of easy riding.
The best way for me to illustrate these differences is to show you. My first example was the four-and-a-half-hour race at the ‘Battle 100’ this year. This was 3 timed segments contained within a longer ride. Here’s a graph of my effort.
My power output is the yellow trace and you can see 3 distinct surges in effort spaced equally through the ride. Each one of these was a maximum effort at around 115% of FTP whereas for everything else I was keeping to the exact minimum that I could still hold the 21km/h gold standard off-road average pace it required.
Alternatively, here’s my data from this year’s National Gravel Championships at the Kings Cup. This was a flat and fast three lap affair over 3 hours with bunches of drafting riders.
In this one, the start was really hard as riders fought to stay in the main group. I held 95% of my FTP for the first 50 minutes alone and you can see my power progressively fall away after this as I either fatigued or set into an established group.
As a result, you can see that both gravel races required different kinds of effort so would therefore require different training.
Hydration and fueling for gravel
The other key aspect is your hydration and fueling. This needs a bit of thought. You may have to carry everything you need for an event as there may be few or no aid stations at all. This can mean really thinking about how you will carry your fluid, any solid foods and gels and knowing exactly what you’ll need and when.
Practise with these is essential. As the guys at Precision Fuel & Hydration will tell you, I have made some ‘creative’ fueling decisions this year – mainly because I wanted to know what my limits were.
The result being that you arguably haven’t lived until you’ve been staggering around like a cast extra from the ‘Walking Dead’ at the finish line, ranting like a lunatic about ‘tyre widths’ and then being hauled away by loved ones for the long drive home.
The gravel races to add to your diary
As far as races generally go, the most famous gravel event is the Unbound (formerly known as Dirty Kanza) which is probably to gravel racing what IRONMAN Hawaii is to triathlon. It’s an iconic event held in Kansas and the challenge of up to 200 miles of non-stop racing attracts hundreds of riders every year.
However, the beauty of gravel racing – particularly in the UK - is that the sport is so comparatively young that the formats vary considerably and are springing up all of the time.
For example, there are point-to-point races, segment races and ultra long bike-packing rides. That’s just the differences in distances.
When you consider terrain, it varies even more as routes can contain gravel lanes, single track, sandy paths, beaches, climbs and technical downhills.
From the point of view of beginners, I recommend sourcing an off-road sportive style affair and just having a go. You’ll build confidence, make loads of friends, have plenty of great conversations, and see your country from a different angle.
When you’re comfortable with this, try something a little more competitive like Gritfest, Grinduro or the Kings Cup.
You haven’t even got to find an event – go online and find some local off-road routes on apps like Kamoot, mapmyride, ‘myGPX’ or Strava, equip yourself and then just get out there and explore.
Gravel racing enters unknown territory...
What's interesting about the emerging published research in the gravel riding field isn’t about the training, the technology or the science but is actually about its social identity and participation.
This is more important than you think because some sports have arguably lost their way (and ultimately their widespread popularity) when they lost sight of why people wanted to do it in the first place.
Gravel racing is currently about free-spirited riding and having a good time with everyone else, whether you’re the proverbial hare or the tortoise.
The sport is now about to enter unknown territory as cycling’s governing body, the UCI, recently announced their inaugural World Championships and a world series format. Let’s hope it’s all about participation and exposure and not about sock height and minimum bike weights.
As we enter this new realm for gravel, I return to the opening quote of this article and the idea it’s not really all about ‘gravel riding’. In the same way that we based a whole running culture around the Athenian Pheidippides' legendary (and fatal!) run to Marathon (whilst seemingly ignoring the 140 miles he’d run directly before it), gravel riding is more than its title.
From what I’ve experienced so far, it’s really ‘all terrain’ riding. Funnily enough, that’s what cheap MTB’s were called back in the mid 80’s. ATB’s. What goes around comes around I guess...